6 months later, Mississippi communities hit by March tornado fear they’ve been abandoned

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Construction workers prepare to hang drywall in Annie Burnett’s partially-rebuilt home in Silver City, Mississippi, on Sept. 20, 2023.

Construction workers prepare to hang drywall in Annie Burnett’s partially-rebuilt home in Silver City, Mississippi, on Sept. 20, 2023. Burnett's home was destroyed by a deadly tornado that rolled through the lower Mississippi Delta and parts of Alabama in March.

Michael McEwen, MPB News

Annie Burnett stands watch as a group of workers nail sheetrock in the studs of what used to be her living room. Lively Spanish music plays from a speaker as workers clamber around the tight space on stilts, covering the beams overhead that support her new roof. 

It’s Wednesday evening in late September, and Burnett’s home is one of four on her street in Silver City, Mississippi, that’s currently being repaired. On March 24, an EF-4 tornado ravaged the lower Mississippi Delta and parts of Alabama, killing at least 23 people, injuring dozens more and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses — most notably in nearby Rolling Fork.

By the time the storm system passed over Silver City, it had weakened to an EF-2, but the winds were enough to damage a portion of Burnett’s home.

“This entire side right here was gone,” Burnett said as she gave a tour of the repair’s progress. “Bedroom, bathroom, and part of the kitchen was gone.”

Picking up the pieces after the storm has been challenging for Burnett. Most of the money she received from her homeowner’s insurance covered the balance of her mortgage and the price of the land she lives on, leaving her only $34 to begin rebuilding.

Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian humanitarian aid organization, helped repair the siding and her roof, and a local man has been donating building supplies for families on her street. Visible through a newly installed window pane is a temporary FEMA trailer that Burnett and her children have been living in for months. She said it’s been a good solution, but it’s also the only one she’s been offered over the last six months.

Burnett said she’s frustrated that no officials have come to check on them. When asked if anyone had come to speak to her since the storm, she looked across the distance to a white house behind a wooden fence. 

“Not even the mayor, and he lives right there,” she said. “I wish the mayor and the county would do more. As you see, nothing is getting done but a load of dirt.”

Now, six months after the storm caught national headlines, residents say resources are scarce and they’ve been left to find a path to recovery with minimal help from leadership.

‘Not even a pitch in the pail’

Instead of seeking help from the county, Burnett is relying on the goodwill of volunteers like Andrew Kimber.

Kimber, who lives in nearby Belzoni, has been coordinating the groups of volunteers who are helping rebuild Burnett’s and her neighbors’ homes. He said it’s been difficult to watch as Burnett’s neighbors try to figure out their options to rebuild. Many don’t have a lot of money or adequate homeowners insurance. While federal relief is available, he said it’s usually not enough. 

The maximum limit of housing assistance under-insured or uninsured residents can receive from FEMA after a major disaster is $41,000, with an additional $41,000 for other assistance. 

“FEMA can only help you up to $41,000,” Kimber said. “$41,000 is not enough to build a house. It’s not even a pitch in the pail.”

Across the six affected counties in Mississippi, the U.S. Small Business Administration has approved more than $20.1 million in long-term, low-interest disaster loans for homeowners, renters and businesses. FEMA has approved more than $12 million through its Individuals and Households Program, with more than $8 million approved for housing assistance.

In Humphreys County, where Silver City is, the average amount of FEMA assistance paid out to families was $3,773.04. In Sharkey County, where Rolling Fork is the county seat, the average was about $7,258.36. 

Federal assistance is not meant to replace homeowner’s insurance, FEMA’s guidelines state, but Kimber said it’s — so far — been the only help many living in Mississippi’s poorest region have received after the storm. Some elderly residents have taken out large loans to rebuild their homes when previously they’d been living mortgage-free. It’s expensive, but donations and manpower have nearly run out.

“When things happen, people come and help out,” he said. “When you get to two to three weeks in, everybody’s gone, and that’s when people really realize they’ll just have to fend for themselves.”

Slow march ahead

In nearby Rolling Fork, the steady stream of work trucks and volunteers seen in March has slowed to a trickle. A donation center, where people could come to find things like clothing and canned goods, closed two weeks ago, leaving the local Stop ‘N’ Shop or Dollar General as the only nearby options for residents. Milk, bottled water and meat are low at both.

Rolling Fork City Hall is still operating temporarily out of a trailer, and elected officials coordinate plans around an arrangement of folding tables. Mayor Eldridge Walker said that his biggest priority is getting displaced residents back into Rolling Fork, and they’ve been patient. 

“Everybody understands that this is a long process,” Walker said. “Six months doesn’t mean anything. This rebuild is going to take five to six years, in my opinion.”

Rolling Fork, Mississippi Mayor Eldridge Walker sits in his office on Sept. 20, 2023.
Rolling Fork, Mississippi Mayor Eldridge Walker sits in his office on Sept. 20, 2023. The town’s temporary City Hall is currently housed in a complex of trailers also serving the police and fire departments. (Michael McEwen/MPB News)

Part of what Rolling Fork has to navigate, Walker said, is complying with landfill regulations for the cleanup. The city has to ensure they have a place to safely dispose of debris or find someone who can haul it away to other landfills. So far, cleanup crews across the state have removed almost two million cubic yards of debris.

Walker said it’s tough to drive through the devastation daily, but there are bright spots all over the community.

“It’s a hurting feeling that I feel for the community, but after riding around and taking a look and seeing new homes coming up and new businesses coming up, that gives us hope,” he said.

That hope can be seen at Chuck’s Dairy Bar, a returning business that was destroyed in the tornado. Owner Tracy Harden and eight others sought refuge in a walk-in cooler the night of the storm. Now, she’s back at work with one goal — to bring hope to others.

Chuck’s Dairy Bar employees working out of the restaurant's temporary food truck prepare to close for the day in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, on Sept. 20, 2023.
Chuck’s Dairy Bar employees working out of the restaurant’s temporary food truck prepare to close for the day in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, on Sept. 20, 2023. (Michael McEwen/MPB News)

“It’s always been my job, even before this happened,” Harden said. “Not just running a restaurant. I’m trying to give hope and trying to give love and just constantly show that. Even through all of this, I find the good in every day.”

She’s been working out of a small food truck, first offering free meals right after the storm hit. Now, she’s selling breakfast plates and entrees like fried chicken and sandwiches.

She’s glad to have some income toward rebuilding her restaurant now that people are moving back and the community is coming alive again. Contractors have laid the foundation and installed plumbing for what will become the next iteration of Chuck’s Dairy Bar. Harden hopes to reopen before the year’s end.

“Our town will be back,” she said. “I hear about little towns that get blown away and never come back, but we are fighting so hard. I have no doubt that we will.”

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR

 

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